January 28, 2015
All Indian cities are a crowded jumble of people, vehicles, shops, animals and well, just life. At first glance Madurai is no different, but as you look deeper it somehow seems more manageable, more friendly. The old town, centered around the exquisite Meenakshi Amman Temple, has a fascinating atmosphere that draws you in. No mistake, it’s just as dirty and chaotic as any other city, but one worth exploring.
What better way to explore the back streets of this city that never sleeps than on a street food tour. Foodies Day Out offers a three hour guided tour of a dozen different eateries and vendors and tastes of more items than you can eat. Guests are picked up at their hotel and driven to various locations around town, with short distances covered on foot.
The journey begins with something sweet. Our guide, Sri, stops the car, gets out and disappears around the corner, coming back with two rolls individually wrapped in paper. He gives us each one and explains that sweets are eaten at the beginning of the meal to wake up the taste buds. The reddish gel, tasting of pure ghee and nuts, mildly sweet, certainly livens the taste buds.
Next stop, Murugan Idli Shop for a taste of their idli – a steamed bread, crispy dosa and an onion othappam – all bread products normally eaten for breakfast. I notice that the menu board is only written in Sanskrit. A banana leaf is placed in front of us and the server pours some water on it. We are shown how to smear the water over the leaf to clean it and then pour off the excess on the table. The leaf is then loaded with various chutneys – coconut, tomato and coriander, and sambar – a kind of spicy soup.
Then the bread products come out one at a time. You are supposed to break apart the bread with one hand and eat it with the chutneys in any combination you like. I watch Sri knead the bread into the chutney much like the old woman at Moonraker kneaded the rice into the sauce. Tasty, wonderful and full of ghee (a sort of clarified butter), we refrain from eating too much as we have many more tastes to discover.
The places that followed were a combination of street snacks and small shops. While too many to mention all of them, below is a representative sampling.
A stop at a stall across from a hospital where a woman sells disk of a fine rice noodle called idiyappam. The cakes are eaten with a coconut milk, sugar and shavings of coconut. Mild tasting and supposed to be very nourishing for the sick.
On to the main event and my favorite of the evening. We drive across the river to the new town where we stop at Karupanne Kadai – an outdoor street corner shop.
At a street side table the parottas are served to us on a banana leaf – the same cleaning process as done at the first place – along with meat sauces and chopped meat mixtures, one chicken and egg and the other mutton. Chutneys are also provided for extra flavor. As we are eating we hear a loud clanging sound, something like a higher pitched metallic jack hammer.
I peer over the partition that separates the dining area from the kitchen to see the cook chopping the meat with jackhammer speed using two metal chopping blades. The show is as good as the food!
So full I can barely move we have one more stop at Konar Kadai, back in the old town near the palace. We end the evening much like it began with dosa. This time a soft dosa with layers of egg and mutton. Excellent and rich I can barely swallow just a few mouthfuls.
Overall this is a fascinating tour for those who are not overly familiar with South Indian food and have a taste for adventure. As would be expected from street food the dishes tend toward starches, butter and sugar. My advice would be to go light on some of the earlier sampling in order to save room for the end dishes. Even so, you’ll end up eating way more than you planned, but will love the experience.
Sri explained that this is a family business started about two years ago more as a hobby than a real business. His brother and sister-in-law, along with another couple, professionals all, decided it would be fun to show others their hometown delicacies. As such they treat clients more as friends, taking them to their favorite snack shops and chatting about local foods and customs. This homey approach brings great life to the tour and makes sharing the dishes and learning about the local culture and food all the more fun.